Inside the Vault [on SPIONE]

An essay commissioned by Masters of Cinema in the U.K. for their DVD of Fritz Lang’s Spione, released in 2005. This is reprinted in my recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago, 2010). — J.R.

If Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) anticipates the pop mythologies of everything from Fantasia to Batman to Star Wars, his master spy thriller of four years later seems to usher in some of the romantic  intrigues of Graham Greene, not to mention much of the paraphernalia of Ian Fleming, especially in their movie versions. No less suggestively, the employments of paranoia and conspiracy by less mainstream artists such as Jacques Rivette (Out 1) and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow) seem rooted in the seductively coded messages, erotic intrigues, and multiple counter-plots of Spione.

One is also tempted to speak of Alfred Hitchcock, who certainly learned a trick or two from Lang —- though in this case the conceptual and stylistic differences may be more pertinent than the similarities. One could generalize by saying that Hitchcock is more interested in his heroes while Lang is more interested in his villains, and the different approaches of each director in soliciting or discouraging the viewer’s identification with his characters are equally striking, especially if one contrasts the German films of Lang with the American films of Hitchcock.… Read more »

Life Intimidates Art [IRMA VEP]

From the June 13, 1997  Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Irma Vep

Rating ****

Directed and written by Olivier Assayas

With Maggie Cheung, Nathalie Richard, jean-Pierre Léaud,  Lou Castel,  Dominique Faysse, Bulle Ogier, Arsineé Khanjian, and Antoine Basler.

 

The whole point is that the world is constantly changing, and that as an artist one must always invent new devices, new tools, to describe new feelings, new situations….If we don’t invent our own values, our own syntax, we will fail at describing our own world. — Olivier Assayas, in a letter to critic Kent Jones

Like many other eras, ours is not inordinately fond of examining itself, and any movie that does that work for us risks being overlooked, resented, or simply misunderstood. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Taiwanese Goodbye, South, Goodbye, one of the major films at Cannes last year to perform this task, was greeted mainly by bored puzzlement. But a Peruvian film critic in Chicago a few weeks back mentioned to me that this movie told him more about what was happening in contemporary Peru than any other he’d seen — which suggests that our awareness of global capitalism’s recent activities may be more germane to appreciating certain movies than their particular nationalities.… Read more »

TIH-MINH, OUT 1: On the Nonreception of Two French Serials

From The Velvet Light Trap, spring 1996 (and reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics). Given all the screenings of Out 1 that are recently taking place on both sides of the Atlantic, with (almost) concurrent Blu-Ray and DVD releases in France, the U.K., and the U.S., this seems like a good time to repost this article. My still lengthier reflections can be found on the Carlotta digital releases in France and the U.S.  — J.R.

On the Issue of Nonreception

What connections can be found between two French serials made almost half a century apart? Aside from the fact that both of them appear on my most recent “top ten” list (1), I’m equally concerned with the issue of why such pleasurable, evocative, enduring, multifaceted, and incontestably beautiful works should remain so resolutely marginal — unseen, unavailable, and virtually written out of most film histories except for occasional guest appearances as the vaguest of reference points. The problem isn’t simply an American or an academic one; although no print of either serial exists in the United States, it can’t be said that either film has received much attention in France either — or elsewhere, for that matter.… Read more »

Ivan the Bearable [Interview with Ivan Passer about CUTTER'S WAY]

In celebration of Cutter’s Way, which Twilight Time is bringing out on Blu-Ray. This interview appeared in The Soho News, July 15, 1981. — J.R.

 

A very likeable guy, this Ivan Passer. When he tells a story, he knows just how to pace it out dramatically, in filmic terms — a trait he shares with Samuel Fuller, who virtually stages movie sequences in the course odf describing them. A very different kind of director who also has a special feeling for outcasts, Passer pursues a subtle way of his own. A Czech in exile, he suavely took over my attention with the quiet intensity of a small, spry Ancient Mariner.

I had been knocked out by his passionate Cutter’s Way. Under the title Cutter and Bone, the movie had already been aptly praised in these pages by Seth Cagin and Veronica Geng — right around the same time that it was getting abruptly snatched from release — and it was a pleasure to find it living up to its notices.

It’s hard to be precise about the doleful yet personable wit projected by Passer — a matter of style, feeling and attitude more than taste or opinion –but it helps if you’ve seen one of his movies.… Read more »

Orson Welles’ Alternatives

From the April 2015 Sight and Sound. — J.R.

TheTrial-corridor-stripes

Who ever said Orson Welles’ filmography has to be neat? But one rudimentary way of bringing some order would be to distinguish between nine films he completed to his satisfaction (Citizen Kane, Macbeth, Othello, The Fountain of Youth, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and Filming Othello) and nine others he didn’t complete and/or lost control of (The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Don Quixote, The Deep, The Other Side of the Wind).  Yet even this isn’t as neat as it sounds, because he completed two separate versions of both Macbeth (1948 and 1950 — the second at the studio’s request — to eliminate the Scottish accents and shorten the running time by two reels; both are available today in France) and Othello (1952 and 1953; neither, alas, is commercially available anywhere — only an alteration of the second version, edited for the U.S. release and three minutes shorter than its predecessor, and mislabeled a ‘restoration,’ with different sound effects and music added in stereo in 1992).… Read more »

From Iran With Love

From the Chicago Reader (September 29, 1995). — J.R.

Homework

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Through the Olive Trees

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

With Hossein Rezai, Tahereh Ladanian, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, Farhad Kheradmand, and Zarifeh Shiva.

At the Toronto film festival earlier this month Canadian filmmaker Clement Vigo recalled the memorable response of Winston Churchill to pressure to cut state arts funding during World War II: “If we cut funding for the arts and culture, then what are we fighting for?” It’s a question I’ve been pondering ever since.

A month earlier, while I was in the middle of looking at close to 100 films as part of the New York film festival’s selection committee, I had the rare privilege of being able to fly for a weekend to still another festival, in Locarno, Switzerland, to serve on a panel devoted to Godard’s Histoire(s) de cinéma. Locarno had two ambitious sidebars this year — one devoted to Godard’s video series, the other to Iranian women filmmakers and the first virtually complete retrospective of work by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami ever held anywhere, including an exhibition of his color photographs of landscapes and two very beautiful paintings.… Read more »

Reflections on LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (2012) by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

Last year, an expanded edition of my book with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Abbas Kiarostami (University of Illinois Press, 2004), was published in Argentina by Los Rios, translated into Spanish by Luciana Borrini and Julián Aubrit. Unfortunately, an expanded edition of this book in English isn’t forthcoming because the current editors of the Contemporary Film Directors series at University of Illinois Press are interested in commissioning a new book about Kiarostami, not in revising or expanding the existing one. However, one of the two texts added to the Argentinian edition, my essay “Watching Kiarostami Films at Home,” is already available on this site, as are an essay about Shirin I wrote for the Cinema Guild DVD and an earlier dialogue I had with Mehrnaz about the film. Here is the other addition, written by Mehrnaz expressly for the expanded edition. — J.R.

 112013_libro

Reflections on Like Someone in Love (2012)

By Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

 

 

LikeSomeoneinLove

I

A phone conversation between Chicago (Saeed-Vafa) and Rome (Kiarostami), March 17, 2013:

Shirin

MS:  When you talked about Shirin in one of your interviews, you said that it was a unique film that could have changed your career, if you had made it earlier. What did you meant by that?… Read more »

Don’t Look Back [short story]

This is a story, never before published, written during my teens — most likely in  early 1960, when I was a junior at a boarding school on a farm in Vermont, age 17. I’ve done some light editing. The illustrations, which I realize are not always consistent with one another or precisely congruent with the story, are all gleaned from the Internet.

This story is the second in a series of three to be posted, all fantasies and all written when I was in high school. (The other two stories can be accessed here and here.)  I feel today that they were written by someone else, but it’s clear that all three of them are interconnected, including in certain ways that I might not have been fully aware of at the time. I like them in spite of their obvious flaws, and hope that visitors to this site will at least find them intriguing. — J.R.

Don’t Look Back

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

/Hey Jim you got that fire going yet? Good…kick that log in; that’ll help it,,,nothing like a good campfire once it’s really going, Say Joe are the Barneses here yet? Well -– we can start without them I guess –-

I guess you’re all wondering why I called you all together here tonight.… Read more »

Prelude — What I Did on My Summer Vacation (September 1977)

The second part of my reprinting of Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980); this part appeared originally in Film Comment, and for this appearance I’ve added several illustrations.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. – J.R.

Prelude—
What I Did on My Summer Vacation (September 1977)

Imagination believes before knowing constructs. Believes longer than remembers, longer than knowing even conjures. Knows believes conjures a highway in Mississippi, August 10, on the way to Faulkner’s home in Oxford, tracing a literary pilgrimage from Florence, my hometown in Alabama, part of whose route might approximate the pregnant journey of Lena Grove on the opening pages of Light in August.

What has any of this to do with cinema? First, the car’s languid progress up and down a straight road flanked by forest: a trick of suspended time, pure movie and pure Faulkner. Then the hot moist afternoon light filtering through the branches into a milky pool of delicate focus, like the last scene in Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, making it easy to imagine in a tactile, even in a carnal way why Dreyer wanted to adapt Light in August, thinking Yes of course only Dreyer could have done it right, handled both sides of the dialectic, all the hot wood and cold flesh and embracing palpitant air, impregnable and inviolate.Read more »

LOVE ME TONIGHT and MULHOLLAND DRIVE

Both of these very short pieces were written in 2002 for Understanding Film Genres, a textbook that for some unexplained reason was never published. Steven Schneider commissioned them.  — J.R.

Love Me Tonight

Love Me Tonight Love Me Tonight2 Love Me Tonight3

There are two distinct aesthetics for movie musicals, regardless of whether they happen to be Hollywood or Bollywood, from the 1930s or the 1950s, in black and white or in color. According to one aesthetic– exemplified by Al Jolson (as in The Jazz Singer) or the team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (as in The Gay Divorcee or Top Hat–a musical is a showcase for talented singers and/or dancers showing what they can do with a particular song or a number. According to the second aesthetic, exemplified by Guys and Dolls—-the two leads of which, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, aren’t professional singers or dancers–the musical is a form for showing the world in a particular kind of harmony and grace and for depicting what might be called metaphysical states of being. The leads are still expected to sing in tune, of course, but notions of expertise and virtuosity in relation to their musical performances are no longer the same.

Most musicals, of course, partake of both aesthetics.Read more »

Hollywood Unchained [SPARTACUS]

From the May 10, 1991 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

SPARTACUS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Dalton Trumbo

With Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, and John Ireland.

“It has acres of dead people, more blood and gore than you ever saw in your whole life.

“In the final scene, Spartacus’s mistress, carrying her illegitimate baby, passes along the Appian Way with 6,000 crucified men on crosses.

“That story was sold to Universal from a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don’t go to see it.”

Despite these dire warnings from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper — and another from the American Legion, which sent a letter to its 17,000 local posts urging people to boycott the movie — Spartacus, released in 1960 and reportedly the most expensive movie ever shot in Hollywood, eventually turned a profit. It was even the top money-maker of 1962 after it went into general release — thereby, I suppose, making Commie symps of all of us who went to see it. It was the Kennedy era, and the blood and gore on view were pretty tame by today’s standards; for the record, the number of crucified men — rebel slaves — while high, is a good bit shy of 6,000.… Read more »

Nightmare as Funhouse Ride: Orson Welles’s THE TRIAL

Written for the StudioCanal Blu-Ray of The Trial in the Spring of 2012. — J.R.

‘What made it possible for me to make the picture,’ Orson Welles told Peter

Bogdanovich of his most troubling film, ‘is that I’ve had recurring nightmares of guilt

all my life: I’m in prison and I don’t know why –- going to be tried and I don’t know

why. It’s very personal for me. A very personal expression, and it’s not all true that

I’m off in some foreign world that has no application to myself; it’s the most

autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me.

And just because it doesn’t speak in a Middle Western accent doesn’t mean a damn

thing. It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture

I’ve ever made.’

To anchor these feelings in one part of Welles’ life, he was 15 when his alcoholic

father died of heart and kidney failure, and Welles admitted to his friend and

biographer Barbara Leaming that he always felt responsible for that death. He’d

followed the advice of his surrogate parents, Roger and Hortense Hill, in refusing to

see Richard Welles until he sobered up, and ‘that was the last I ever saw of him….I’ve

always thought I killed him….I don’t want to forgive myself.Read more »

APOCALYPSE NOW (catalogue entry)

Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato, June-July 2016. — J.R.

Apocalypse Now

 

apocalypse_now_

 

apocalypsenow-1stshot

Like much of Coppola’s best work -– The Conversation, the Godfather trilogy, Bram Stoker’s Dracula –- Apocalypse Now teeters on the edge of greatness, and perhaps it wouldn’t teeter at all if greatness weren’t so palpably what it was lusting after. To my mind it functions best as a series of superbly realized set pieces bracketed by a certain amount of pretentious guff, some of which could be traced back to Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the movie’s point of departure, as well as some powerful voiceover narration written by Michael Herr, whose book Dispatches offered some authentic glimpses of the war from the American side. Much of the guff, I would argue, stems from the fact that Coppola never quite worked out what he wanted to say, a fact he often acknowledged at the time. Indeed, Coppola’s continuing doubt is a major element of the saga being celebrated here: the Passion of the Artist writ large, made to seem far more important than the mere suffering and deaths of a few hundred thousand nameless and faceless peasants (and American soldiers) across the South China Sea.… Read more »

A Little Transcendence Goes a Long Way [MILLION DOLLAR BABY & THE AVIATOR]

From the December 4, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Million Dollar Baby

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Paul Haggis

With Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank, Jay Baruchel, and Mike Colter

The Aviator

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by John Logan

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, and Ian Holm

Despite his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood, like Martin Scorsese, is at the mercy of his scripts. But in Million Dollar Baby he’s got a terrific one, adapted by Paul Haggis from Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner.

This book was the first published work by Jerry Boyd, writing under the pseudonym F.X. Toole, after 40 years of rejection slips. Boyd had been a fight manager and “cut man,” the guy who stops boxers from bleeding so they can stay in the ring, and he was 70 when the book came out; he died two years later, just before completing his first novel. This movie is permeated by those 40 years of rejection, and the wisdom of age is evident in it as well. Henry Bumstead, the brilliant production designer who helped create the minimalist canvas   — he was art director on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and has been working for Eastwood since 1992 — will turn 90 in March, and Eastwood himself will be 75 a couple months later.… Read more »

Sweet & Sour: Lubitsch and Wilder in Old Hollywood

This originally appeared in Stop Smiling‘s “Hollywood Lost and Found” issue (2007); it’s also reprinted in my latest collection. — J.R.

The camera cranes around the grand façade of a palace, a chateau, or a luxurious grand hotel, peering obliquely through the windows at the various doings inside. Or it stays perched in a hallway, outside a bedroom or a suite inside one of these buildings, while servants, musicians, or cigarette girls enter or leave, encouraging us to imagine what romantic shenanigans might be taking place on the other side of the door.

These are the two main signature shots of the great Hollywood filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch — especially during his Hollywood heyday, the 30s -— and one can also find variations of the second kind, the outside-the-door interiors, in the more romantic movies of Billy Wilder, Lubitsch’s major disciple, whose own Hollywood heyday was the 50s. In Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), which Wilder and his frequent writing partner Charles Brackett helped to script, we’re made to understand how much three Russians in Paris (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) on a government mission are enjoying themselves in their hotel suite when they order up cigarettes, meaning three cigarette girls.… Read more »